To continue on my earlier thread about streetcars, I want to compare them with buses. Why buses? Because streetcars and buses have a long intertwined history of competition and cooperation. The first buses and streetcars-on rails in the US were from carriage 7 years apart in the 1820s & 30s. Horse-buses evolved with horse-streetcars through the mid-1800s, presumably getting battery, steam, and finally gas power at the same pace as the automobile. I have a hard time finding a specific book on this evolution, as there is a lot more love for the streetcar. Finally, the “Busification” of the 1930s and 1950s saw dilapidated streetcar fleets from the 1890s and 1900s scrapped in favor of shorter lived, noisier, and dirtier buses.

A cherished story among the “smart” growth set is that the replacement of streetcars by buses was a conspiracy by GM to break useful transit in American cities. Transit had already been breaking since the jitney boom of 1910 and the inexorable climb in motorcars in traffic. This was not so much a conspiracy as progress, and the bus was not so much foreign technology as a constant companion.

The question I’d like to answer here is, are streetcars actually any better than buses as transit? Luckily, the National Transit Database (NTD) has a wide selection of data on the performance of all rail transit and most bus transit systems in the US. Reporting to the NTD is a condition of large federal aid programs, and rail transits systems always need large federal aid programs to build and operate. Unfortunately, this database does not go back to any period when transit was actually competitive with traffic, like the 1940s or 1910s. Less traffic on the streets might change the relative success of streetcar versus bus operations, but I can’t see why in particular. They are both transit, presumably serving the same market of people with

  • Housing and work near transit stops
  • No car, or
  • A desire to use their car less.

I see that I’ve been focusing on comparing heavy and commuter rail to traffic, even though those things are a rarity in America’s transit landscape. The same data I was using to look at rail could be used to look at buses as well. While I have done that before, I haven’t gotten into the debate of bus versus streetcar. There is a passionate advocacy for streetcar revival as the last great hope for transit in America. I’d like to explore in the coming weeks why I remain skeptical of this.

It took me a few weeks to organize the data from the NTD, and I’m still organizing it for future posts on energy and cost. To start, I’d like to look at the average, maximum and minimum fleet sizes of the 821 bus transit agencies versus the 24 agencies that run streetcars. There are about as many bus transit agencies as there were streetcar companies 120 years ago, in much the same distribution of cities and towns.


*maximums not shown, as there are about 4,000 buses for New York’s MTA and 160 streetcars for Philadelphia’s SEPTA.  I know for a fact that Philadelphia has been running streetcars of some sort since 1858.

I don’t know why streetcars did not start reporting as such until 2011. It could be they were mixed together with light rail. Light rail was better known historically as interurban transit. Any of the interurban service that survives today is as intercity bus lines. The two oldest major carriers, Greyhound and Peter Pan, started out as Jitneys.

The next part of the introduction to this debate is vehicle capacity. Luckily, NTD publishes a table of average seating capacity by mode and by agency, so I can tell you the average, maximum and minimum capacities of bus and streetcar vehicles in all the transit fleets in the US. I hope to compare this to passenger trips served as a metric of capacity versus occupancy. It may or may not be as bad as the 30% occupancy of cars in traffic.


It is a common refrain of transit advocates that streetcars are higher capacity than buses. There is currently no significant difference in vehicle capacity between bus and streetcar vehicles. Perhaps they are thinking of light rail, an entirely different thing.